Officials look at train problems

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Selma Times-Journal

Traffic delays, crossing sign lights that don’t work, and damage to vehicles – these are just a few of the problems with the railroad crossings in the city.

The city of Selma Thursday took its first major step in improving these conditions and appeasing the complaints of its citizens.

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Several city leaders and representatives of Norfolk Southern and Rail Link – the company that manages M&B Railroad – met in the city council chambers to think of possible solutions.

The general feeling after the meeting was that its impact was positive and progress was made.

“I think the lines of communication are open; I think we have been able to establish a direction on the issue,” Selma Mayor James Perkins Jr. said. “We’re leaving here with action items, and I look forward to following up and following through on each of those items.”

Amid requests from railroad representatives that specific tasks be asked of them, Perkins established that a committee consisting of city council members and department heads would be formed. Their job will be to make a list of priority items dealing with improvements to the rail lines within the city.

Perkins also called for more strict enforcement of guidelines that the traffic delays from the trains have been violating.

“Who do we need to call to collect our $500?” Perkins jokingly asked, referring to the city ordinance that calls for a maximum $500 fine for anyone blocking traffic on a city street for more than 10 minutes.

Stopped railroad cars that block traffic has been the most frequent complaint of residents.

A slideshow of the railroad crossings in the city showed most of the problematic crossings were operated by M&B.

That could have something to do with the fact that M&B is a much smaller line.

The Federal Railroad Administration classifies Norfolk Southern as a Class 1 line. M&B is a Class 3, the classification typically given to short-line railroad companies.

According to Rail Link vice president of engineering Rick Leggett, the line is cleaning up some mess left over when the company took over for CSX.

“We’re currently dealing with a lot of the problems CSX deferred,” Leggett said when addressing the members of the meeting. “It’s been our main priority to make sure the actual track structure is safe. That’s not to say the safety of our railroad crossings is not important, but we’re actively dealing with these types of problems as they arise.”

Kenny Bryant, the general manager of M&B, said the company’s local presence is an important factor to consider.

“We have 55 people – about half of our workers – that live here,” Bryant said. “It’s not like you’re calling us and speaking to someone in Atlanta.”

No matter who claims which section of what track, Perkins said these are problems that have to be fixed one way or the other.

“I can tell you right now, the general population of Selma couldn’t tell you who owned what line,” he said. “They just know it’s a city street, and they want it fixed. It all starts in my office, and it flows down and affects everybody.”

Ultimately, each railroad is liable for the safety and functionality of its line.

But Norfolk Southern representatives said as long as the problems are dealt with effectively, they have no problem with the city making concessions to assist M&B.

“We understand short lines can be treated differently,” said Norfolk Southern vice president of government relations John Baker. “What is done for them will not set precedent for us. Alabama is one of the few states with no assistance to assist short-line railroads.”

Also discussed at the meeting was the rail lines’ compliance with local emergency personnel to train for spills of hazardous materials.

Fire Chief Henry Allen said the lack of such training by the city’s emergency personnel could potentially be disastrous.

“Our main concern is the safety of the citizens of Selma,” Allen said. “We really don’t have any Haz-Mat training, and by the time state people get here, it’d be too late. This meeting was way overdue, and it’s going to resolve a lot of key issues.”

Construction of a railroad overpass was also discussed, but Baker suggested that might be more trouble than it’s worth.

“It’s not like a car overpass that you can build up a couple of degrees,” Baker said. “We’re talking miles of steel and concrete, and once it’s up, you might as well run it through the entire city.”

Perkins, however, did not totally rule out an overpass and said its feasibility would be discussed with the city engineer.

Perkins was confident the meeting served its purpose and solutions would be created. He said next time around, the city wouldn’t wait until the 11th hour to take action.

“That’s already running through my head,” Perkins said when asked how much proactive action will be taken once the problems are solved. “In situations like these, you fix the problems, you never really solve the problems. You just constantly work at it. We can use this as a benchmark then have a little better guideline than what we have now.”